Leigh Brackett

The Empire Strikes Back 

I’ve always thought Leigh Brackett was one of the coolest people behind the scenes in Hollywood. She was a pioneering woman in the world of fiction, where she paved the way for female sci fi authors (though she’d never take such credit in interviews, naming women who inspired her). She had some huge screenwriting credits, helped shape the hardboiled style in noir, helped form the (Howard) Hawksian woman and worked on an iconic space movie that you may know, pictured above. She was prolific, turning out lots of crime, fantasy and “sword and planet” fiction while also working in TV and film. Her style was tough and fast as any male pulp writer, but she was just as good at poetic and delicate prose. She was athletic, an animal lover who lived on a farm, a conservative, a positive, self-effacing, “charming and gracious” lady who was well-liked and highly respected. Self-made on the strength of her talent and hard work, she elbowed her way into fields where female creators were rare, but admirably she never considered or presented herself as a victim. In fact she never felt discriminated against or held back in any way** because she was good at what she did, enjoyed the common interests and “chummy” circle of fellow creatives as well as the support and respect of strong men all through her life. It helped that her success as an author gave her a career apart from Hollywood, because she saw the difficulties and frustrations of the screenwriter’s life for men and women alike. Brackett was the epitome of empowered, a very interesting artist and great role model.

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Some highlights of Leigh Brackett’s life and career:

1915: Brackett is born in Los Angeles, an only child raised by her widowed mother and grandparents after her father died of flu. She’s an imaginative and independent girl that likes to dream up and play out swashbuckling and action scenarios. She’s an early reader, and once hooked on Edgar Rice Burrough’s books (she names The Ghosts of Mars as the one that changed her), falls in love with fantastic yarns and by 13 is writing her own action/adventure stories.

1939: She joins the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society and her grandfather urges her to write and try to sell her stories.

1940: Brackett’s first published stories appear in Astounding and Planet Stories magazines, and she met her future husband, writer Edmond Hamilton (space fiction master who originated the idea of the space suit). Her first love is writing sci fi but she considers herself too slow a writer in too tight a market to earn enough money, so she tries her hand at crime fiction.

1944: Her first novel, No Good From a Corpse, about a Southern California private detective, comes out and makes an impression on Howard Hawks. Brackett has a friend who works at Howard Hawks’ favourite bookstore. That friend makes sure to include and recommend Brackett’s novel in his buy pile. Hawks is indeed impressed, mainly with Brackett’s sharp and lively dialogue, and asks his agent to get “that Brackett guy” to collaborate on The Big Sleep script with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman. Hawks is amused when the guy that shows up is a girl.

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It’s Brackett’s first movie assignment, and the first of her six screenplays with Hawks. They get along instantly, he puts her under personal contract to him, and will in the years to come, pay her high compliment by saying she writes like a man. Another good Big Sleep anecdote has star Humphrey Bogart assuming Brackett wrote lines that he disliked, because they were overly soft and gentlemanly. Turns out Faulkner wrote the milder material and Brackett his favourite dialogue.

When Brackett was called to Hollywood she was almost done writing “Lorelei of the Red Mist” and with a deadline looming, handed it off to friend and mentor Ray Bradbury to finish.

1945: Screenplay credit for The Vampire’s Ghost, adapted from her story.

1946: Screenplay for Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt.

1947: Ghost writes George Sanders’ novel Stranger At Home.

1949: Introduces the character Eric John Stark, her archetypal hero, an interplanetary swashbuckler who’d have several fictional adventures through the next decades.

1954: Screenplay credit for the thriller The Stranger Came Home, based on her novel.

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1959: Screenplay (with Jules Furthman) for Rio Bravo (one of the greatest things ever written as far as I’m concerned). With Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep and now this, Brackett deservedly gets credit for creating the feisty, tough and stubborn Hawksian woman.

that year her book An Eye for an Eye (1957) was the basis for the CBS series Markham (1959–60)

1961: Screenplay for the western Gold of the Seven Saints.

1962: Screenplay for Hatari! Also that year, her book The Tiger Among Us (1957) was made into the movie 13 West Street.

1963: Writes two episodes of TV’s The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: “Terror at Northfield” and “Death of a Cop.”

1966: Brackett based her script for El Dorado on Harry Brown’s book The Stars in Their Courses. She considered it her finest screenwriting, and Hawks and John Wayne loved it, but as production went on, Hawks became more interested in making what Brackett called “The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again.” Hawks had his pet plots, didn’t feel he told that particular story properly and wanted to do it right this time. He asked Brackett to focus on the element of the aging gunfighter who can’t go it alone anymore, and even asked her to include a scene that had been cut from Rio Bravo. She protested and argued her views, but tried her best to make the script different and original.*** The film was a hit.

1970: Rio Lobo was Brackett’s final collaboration with Hawks and his last movie.

1973: Works with Robert Altman on The Long Goodbye.

1975: Writes “The Four Pound Brick” episode of The Rockford Files.

1977: Brackett is assigned the screenplay for Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

1978: Right after finishing her draft of Empire and handing it in to Fox, Brackett dies of skin cancer.

1978: John Carpenter names the Sheriff in Halloween “Leigh Brackett,” the first place I heard the name.

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This post is part of The Anti-Damsel Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently and The Last Drive In

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*Gats, Six-Guns and Blasters, by Bud Webster

**Interview with Leigh Brackett

***Rio Bravo was the first in an informal trilogy (Cine Archive)

Leigh Brackett interview

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33 thoughts on “Leigh Brackett”

  1. Great post. I love that story about Hawks thinking Brackett was a man.
    I’m surprised no one has written a biography of this great writer.
    I didn’t know that Hawks had tinkered with the writing of Eldorado.( though I should have guessed).
    I thought Rio Lobo was very poor and a sad reflection on Hawks.

    1. The sources I link to are long and fascinating interviews/bios if you want to read more. A book on her life would be great. One of the unsung creatives who had a lot of impact. Thanks!

  2. I’ve just now read the two interviews which were fascinating.Many thanks for the links.
    What a writer she was,coming from a background of science fiction and then writing the quintessential western,Rio Bravo.

  3. I was looking forward to your post because I wanted to know more about Leigh Brackett and her work in “men’s” genres. Wonderful overview of an amazing career!

    1. I’d been waiting for a good reason to post on her and this was perfect. A woman who deserves spotlight for her impact on pop culture. Talent and a good attitude opens doors, always. Thanks for the kind words and thanks for co-hosting this great event!

  4. I am so glad you posted about Leigh Brackett! She is one of my favourite screenwriters of all time.

    1. Thanks, I can see why, I love that she made her mark in such different genres and media. I have huge respect for genre/pulp writers anyway and she has a great story.

  5. This is a terrible thing to say but given her resume I just assumed she was a he! Thank you for bringing this great female screenwriter to my attention. Talk about a perfect anti damsel.
    -summer

    1. Well that’s excellent, you now know “that guy Brackett” lol was a great gal of great achievements. Thanks so much for reading!

  6. What a busy writer! I’m so glad you featured her, because I knew nothing about her, nor did I realize how vast her repertoire was.

    It’s made me admire Rio Bravo even more, which I did not think was possible.

    1. Me too, I really think that’s such a fabulous screenplay, certainly one of my favourite films of all time. It’s fun to discover new people and connections in the movies, who’da thunk you can connect all these movies by one degree! Thanks!

  7. What a neat post about a cool writer! Good to hear such nice things about her…I had no idea she’d passed away two years before ‘Empire’ was released! I’ll have to look up some of her noir credits, too.

    1. Thanks, yes I always thought her life and work sounded so cool, those pulpy writers who dabbled in Hollywood always impress me. I guess I’ve always wanted to be one!

    1. I love the story of any writer that makes it like this, cooler when they write things I like, cooler still when it’s a woman who can play alongside the macho guys :). Great story.

  8. Nice tribute to a wonderful screenwriter.

    I especially agree about RIO BRAVO–everything about that movie, from script to cast to direction makes it one of the best movies ever made, and one of the most enjoyable to go back to countless times because it just never wears out.

    So of course, Hawks used Brackett on both followups, EL DORADO and RIO LOBO, each less than the one before, though I have at least some affection even for RIO LOBO, just to enjoy Hawks still being Hawks even when it isn’t working that well.

    In the case of EL DORADO, it is kind of a shame though. I believe one can see how great Brackett’s original screenplay was from the first part of the film–maybe about 45 minutes up through the sequence in which Cole, Mississippi and Nelse first meet. This first part of the film is partly tragic, surely partly drawn from the novel, and is different from RIO BRAVO. But when Cole and Mississippi return to El Dorado country, the film quickly becomes a series of RIO BRAVO variations, mostly pleasant but rarely more than that. And that’s Hawks falling back into his comfort zone. It could have been a great movie on its own, going by that first stretch (even if not as great as RIO BRAVO), and sadly, it isn’t. Hawks was creative on the set, always did some rewriting (generally making things even better), but usually not changing the whole story this much.

    1. I love Rio Bravo, just like you say, it never gets old and it’s one of those films that I try to take apart to see how it works. I hope to rewatch El Dorado sometime this year, I haven’t seen it in years. Very curious as what it could have been. In those few interviews I linked Brackett said some more about that. Fascinating writer and I can relate to her childhood love of pulpy action stories and wanting to write them 🙂 Thanks!

  9. Brackett was also the great hands-on mentor for this kid, Ray Bradbury (Theodore Sturgeon was his more remote literary role-model). She was not just a contributor, but the heart and soul, the essence of the magazine PLANET STORIES, though it took till Jerome Bixby (“It’s a *Good* Life”, FANTASTIC VOYAGE) became the editor for most of the other contributors to come close to what she contributed in those later issues. Her rather sober sf novel THE LONG TOMORROW was reprinted by the Library of America a year or two back. A very good choice for an anti-damsel. Sadly, if propitiously, her husband and she edited each other’s BEST OF volumes of their sf work not long before they died.

    1. One interview I found was them together, talking about their work, that was a fun read! Like you say she had so much going on and so many works that I felt I shortchanged her a bit by just focusing on the movies/tv stuff. But I hope people who weren’t aware of her at all discover her. I found it funny that she thought her detective fiction was kind of a mess, but look at the work she got from it. A talented but modest lady. Thanks for reading and for linking through to my blog on your roundups, much appreciated!

  10. I remember when Leigh Brackett died. At first I assumed the story I was reading was about a man. I’ll bet having an ambiguous name helped her in science fiction, crime literature and Hollywood. But her talent is what got her to the heights. Excellent choice.

    1. Thanks very much, yes the name probably helped get past people who might have judged or rejected otherwise, and then the quality of the work was the great equalizer, as it should be.

  11. She was truly a brilliant and bold woman in a man’s arena. I love the idea that he was expecting the writer who walked in to be “that Brackett guy” and it’s a woman! You can’t make this stuff up. It’s a fascinating story about a behind the scenes creator for the dream factory who deserves attention. BTW I love the episode she wrote for The Rockford Files! Loved your piece and it was a great tribute to those anti damsels we’ve been celebrating! Thanks for joining the ride!

    1. She’s a real role model, to little girls who grow up loving horror, pulp, scifi, comics (me, raises hand) and want to create that stuff. She made so much impact in movies and fiction, very cool lady. Thanks for the nice comments and for cohosting this fun event 🙂

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